Beautiful to unbearable: what life is like for refugees in Berlin's 'Nazi' neighbourhood

Holly Young
Holly Young - [email protected]
Beautiful to unbearable: what life is like for refugees in Berlin's 'Nazi' neighbourhood
Marzahn. Photo: DPA

Marzahn has a reputation in Berlin for skinheads and swastika graffiti. But, for the refugees who have been placed there, experiences have been more complex. While some want out, others have found common cause with their marginalized neighbours.


Buildings start to separate and grow taller as you travel from Berlin’s city center to the eastern district of Marzahn. It is a different landscape, populated by towering Plattenbau housing blocks. The roads are wide here: suddenly there is more sky.

Built in the 70s and 80s these housing estates were the largest in East Germany, a vast vision of modern socialist living. The hand of the urban planner can be felt everywhere: buildings all align to an invisible grid.

Today, who these streets are for is in dispute. Beneath the architectural uniformity residents are becoming more diverse and a resurgence of the far-right has reinvigorated Marzahn’s image as a Nazi heartland.

It is the green among the concrete that makes Marzahn a beautiful place to live for Mohammed. He’s lived there for almost a year and, particularly as an artist, values the open space and many parks.

‘Beautiful’ is not a word you expect someone who arrived in Berlin as a refugee to associate with Marzahn. The area has since the 90s had an image as a no-go area for foreigners: type Marzahn into Google and ‘Nazi', ‘racism', and ‘safety’ are keywords that return. After registering one of the highest percentages of support for far-right anti-immigration party Alternative for Germany (AfD) in last month’s national election, it is clear the image is not yet an outdated caricature.

Mohammed had heard the stories. “Before I moved to the area, when other refugees spoke of the area it was always danger, danger, danger,” says the painter. “And that if you are Muslim, or look a certain way, people might give you problems.”

It immediately felt different: there was no middle eastern food and no tourists, but the locals were friendly when you got to know them. “Living there isn’t like the stories,” says Mohammed. “I look different and I’ve come home sometimes late at night. No one has touched me.”

Marzahn’s social and democratic profile is a list of highest and lowest stats. High numbers of child poverty and those claiming long-term unemployment benefits and the lowest percentage of residents from an ethnic minority or migration background in the city. Last year it had the highest number of racially motivated incidents and attacks on refugee shelters. As Germany seeks to make sense of the new popularity of the far-right in the old east and where the identity tug-of-war over refugee integration fits into the mix, it has been plucked out as an area to seek answers.

A far right demo in Marzahn in 2014. Photo: DPA

'It is starting to feel unbearable.'

Last month, on the day of the national election, a member of the far-right Identitäre Bewegung party stuck anti-Islam stickers on the windows of the refugee shelter Susanne Weiss manages in south Marzahn. When the security noticed, the person shouted something, ran away, and later threw something at the door.

There has been a noticeable increase in attacks on shelters since 2015, including racially motivated vandalism and acts of arson. Yet the violence, Weiss argues, is not about the area.

"I think attacks on shelters could happen even in a shelter in Neukölln, which is known for being more diverse and tolerant,” says Weiss. “If right-wing extremists want to attack a home for refugees they would probably also go to the other side of the city.”

While in Weiss’ experience neighbours seem more concerned about the potential increase in garbage than foreigners, she is worried about the attitude refugees sense on the street - especially the women. After being insulted on the street while wearing a headscarf, one colleague now feels uncomfortable walking home alone. This, Weiss believes, is likely to be a fraction of what the families living in the shelter experience.

Sara*, who lives in a Marzahn shelter, is one such woman. Often it is just unnerving stares. Sometimes it is people getting up when she sits beside them on the tram, or glaring at her holding a screaming newborn baby instead of giving up a seat.

She has been assaulted verbally and physically, from both adults and children, men and women. It is on the trams and trains that Sara is most fearful. Once, standing waiting on the platform, a 12-year-old spat on Sara while her mother said and did nothing. Last week on the tram a man hit her head with his bag. She thought it was an accident until he started screaming in her face. Sara doesn’t speak much German yet, but caught a few swear words she has come to recognize. People stared silently. She got off the train with her child and burst into tears.

It all adds up. Her skin has broken out: the doctor says it is from stress. Now Sara hates leaving the shelter. “The atmosphere is getting worse,” she says. “It is starting to feel unbearable.”

Sara sees little point in telling the police. Quantifying the scale of negative experiences in the area is a challenge: one wonders how much goes unreported, and how far living in anticipation of assault is a violence of its own.

Her child has also been a target of abuse: he was told by other children at school they wouldn’t play with him “because he was an Arab”. But it is much worse for women, she says. She, like many she knows, now prefers only to venture out with her husband. Her friend had a man try to pull off her headscarf on the bus. Many friends now leave the house without their headscarves - they don’t want to get hurt.

While many women report also feeling unsafe in their shelters, Sara is happy with her camp. “The problem,” she says, “is out on the streets.” When they finally get their own flat she doesn’t mind where it is - so long as it is “somewhere far away from Marzahn”.

Housing shortages

Construction on refugee housing in Marzahn in 2016. Photo: DPA

The media focus on Marzahn makes Sascha Langenbach, spokesman for LAF, the Berlin authority in charge of refugee accommodation, uneasy. Could making Marzahn one of the top districts in Berlin for the construction of new refugee housing be seen as a recipe for increasing social tensions? The decision, Langenbach explains, was guided by the limitations of the housing market in 2015, which made accommodating the large number of refugees in 2015 a huge challenge.

“When you look at the inner city districts like Mitte and Kreuzberg there was no space left for public housing of any kind, either for migrants or Germans,” says Langenbach.

“The district administration of Marzahn-Hellersdorf was extremely cooperative and that’s the main reason why the first new buildings were built up in Marzahn,” explains Langenbach. Marzahn may have a particular reputation, but Langenbach points out that there was no district in Berlin that didn’t offer a level of resistance to plans for refugee housing.

Like elsewhere in Berlin, the pinch of the city’s rising rents and housing shortage is felt in Marzahn. Hassan Al Hashem is looking to move out of the Marzahn refugee shelter he has been living in for a year. "Last week I went to view a flat,” he says. “When I got there I saw there were 30 people for a flat with one room. Twenty of them were German. Why can’t Germans find a room? I found it so sad.”

"I know there are lots of poor people in Marzahn,” adds Hassan. "But I don’t think they take from others and give to us… However when people are poor they look for something to blame - refugees for example.”

The far-right

Before the wall fell Karin Dalhus learned how to be a Maurerin - someone who builds walls. In her retirement she’s become engaged with the issue of refugee integration, hoping she won’t see the construction of new walls.

She moved to Marzahn in 1985, when it was still a desirable new housing project. In the 90s, she saw the schools and the shops close, and the young move out, as the area felt the effects of reunification. And she has lived to see the area again become a home for both hope and anxiety: a place providing new starts for both refugees and an emboldened far-right movement.

When the wall fell, areas on the edges of the two Berlins suddenly became central, and old centres became peripheral. Marzahn became more of an outskirt. In the 90s the socio-economic story came to mirror the new geography.

The far-right party AfD, who reframed the social question in Germany today as being between ‘outside’ and ‘in’ (the borderline being Germans and foreigners) rather than ‘above’ and ‘below’ have profited in areas like Marzahn. Blaming refugees rather than German bosses for socio-economic marginalization has had particular traction in parts of the old East.

Building bridges

Marzahn may be more ordinary than presumed: the tip of an iceberg sitting underneath the surface of German politics.

“The issue of integration in Marzahn is part of a much wider problem that is nationwide,” says Cordula Bienstein, who has recently led an integration project in the area. "What Merkel did on humanitarian grounds was right but the government has really got no real plan for what happens next.”

In places like Marzahn, much of the day-to-day work of making integration happen has fallen to civil society. Cordula recently ran a project - Wir Sind Marzahn (We are Marzahn) - where local refugees recorded their stories and experiences in a series of short films.

Hassan, who worked on one of the films, saw firsthand the powerful impact dialogue between old and new neighbours could have at local screenings. On one evening, two local women posed critical questions in the Q&A, but after a short discussion went home feeling positive.

"Another time there were lots of Germans at the screening and I saw one crying,” said Hassan. “I went to him and hugged him. It allowed me to see how much emotion and empathy people have here."

The stories people tell themselves about their community are important, perhaps whether they are true or not. For both Karin and Cordula the media focus purely on the rising far-right is frustrating.

An anti-Nazi sign hangs from a street lamp in Marzahn in 2014. Photo: DPA

“Of course the far-right is a problem, but it does not represent all of Marzahn,” says Cordula. "There are so many great projects here and so much voluntary engagement and we are not hearing about how this is working in opposition.”

While many remain unclear what integration actually means, Karin sees small steps that can be made on the streets: better rubbish management outside the shelter, a lick of paint on its dull concrete walls, benches placed in an open circle on the grass separating it from the opposite block of flats.

At the end of our tour Karin stops beside a willow tree. Few remember that it was planted by the parents of three boys killed during a Soviet military incident in 1945. Old and new neighbours have memories of war in common.

The pub across the road from the willow tree was the heart of the community. “Young, old, married, single, widowed - for 28 years everyone met up here,” says Karin. Now it is boarded up - the landlord was forced to close and register as unemployed.

Not all of the ghosts on the streets of Marzahn are sinister. Karin remembers what an integrated community looks like. “Now there is alienation here,” she says. “The neighbourhood went with the wall”.

There are many different Marzahns, and they are more ordinary than extraordinary. If hostility and violence are in the weft, then acceptance and engagement are in the warp. The future for refugees in the area, as in the rest of Germany, is wide open.

When asked about the graffiti on the electricity box outside the pub, which Karin hasn’t mentioned, she said: “It’s a swastika,” before turning and walking on. “But it is a swastika someone has crossed out”.


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